Margaret Sanger, "Woman Rebel Trial Address Notes," Jan 1916.
Source: "Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of CongressLibrary of Congress Microfilm 130:0342."
Handwritten note by Sanger reads: "Notes on address when contemplating trial re Woman Rebel 1916." At the top of the 4th page, Sanger wrote "buck up." Portions of this text were used again in the stump speech she gave on her 1916 national tour. For an example see Condemnation is Misunderstanding, Apr.-July, 1916.
It would ↑might↓ be surprising to me that in the year 1916 a woman who is a trained nurse and a mother, must be brought into this Court as a criminal and plead with you for her liberty, ↑because she↓ advances a subject of the greatest importance to womankind. Were I not acquainted with the long struggle education has had against the powers of government and the tyranny of Authority. As we look back to the past we find from the beginning of time governments persistently sought to stifle all new ideas as well as to suppress all attempts of their expression. We look back with horror at the persecution, champions of new ideas have endured at the hands of authority. Only thirty years ago Annie Besant was prosecuted in England for vindicating ideas of liberty and for publishing literature which was then deemed obscene. The results of her educative work were to give the English people ↑and the English Press↓ the utmost liberty for the free discussion of subjects which the Post Office authorities in this country deem to be ↑obscene↓ " non-mailable matter." To what extent the right of the press is ↑now↓ recognized in England may be seen by the following extracts from the summing up of immigrants ↑idealists↓ caused a change in conditions here and a second battle took place for the freedom of religious expression and now to-day with our rapidly increasing commercial lives, with women out in the industrial field, standing side by side with their brothers in the world's work, a new demand has come forth for the freedom of moral discussion.
The three events are epoch-making in the history of the moral progress of every country and you are indeed privileged men that you have the opportunity to be instrumental in saying that ↑whether↓ the United States of America shall go on the map beside other civilized nations or whether it shall still lag behind in all moral issues as it has continuously done for the past fifty years.
The moral issue is mainly of greatest concern to women. For centuries woman has gone forth with man to till the fields, to feed and clothe the nation. She has shared with him the struggles and hardships of his efforts. She has sacrificed her life to populate the Earth. She has overdone her labors. She has entrusted Man with the wealth of her offspring. He has failed her. He has allowed their ↑her↓ children to die by the thousands in the social system he has constructed and maintains. Woman at last steps forward to demand that she have a word to say in her function of Motherhood and her first request is that woman cease to produce children in ignorance.
For this ↑Because↓ twentieth century sees woman emerge from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge. She demands that she shall have control over her own body; that she shall be a mother when she desires to be one, consciously and voluntarily. In order to do this she must have the knowledge to control birth. Man has seen fit to place the most sacred function of her body on a footing with pornography and he calls any education bearing upon it as "Filthy, vile, obscene". Woman must undo that crime. She must raise Man's standards in this as she has done in the past to a still higher level and place the function of motherhood and its physiology where it rightly belongs. She can only do this through education. And this paper, the "Woman Rebel" was a pioneer attempt to give her that education.
It has been said that the issue advocated in this paper is fifty years ahead of the times. But this I deny. Rather is it a few narrow-minded officials who are fifty years behind the times, for I have found that the great mass of people desire this education knowledge, and it is only the existence of an anti-social law inspired by the late Mr. Comstock that is keeping them in ignorance. From all over this country letters have come to me from women in all departments of life's work, expressing their opinions that the knowledge to prevent conception is a great social necessity and is far removed from obscenity.
As a trained nurse and mother of three children I have reason to consider my views on this question far superior to those of the prosecution whose interest in this question are so removed from mine, for he is not concerned with the fifty thousand women who die each year from abortion in this country. He is not concerned with the 150,000 abortions that occur each year. He is not concerned with the fact that 95% of them are performed on women of the working class; neither is he concerned with the tremendous number of babies who die each year before they are one year old. He is concerned only in winning a verdict in this case while my interests are prompted by the most piteous cry ofthe women of this country have ever uttered.
What can Man know of the mental agony of carrying beneath one's heart a little life which every instinct tells the mother it cannot survive? Little can he know of the mental agony and fear of unwanted pregnancy. Why then should he dictate to her in a function which chiefly concerns her.
The indictments charge me with publishing and circulating ↑indecent↓ obscene literature. What is the meaning obscenity of this word "Obscene"? The average men and wo citizen is not familiar with the definition given in law books but must rely upon the only available source, that is in dictionaries and encyclopedias. I refer you to a standard authority The Encyclopedia Britannica which defines says of "obscenity":-
"The precise meaning of the word is decidedly ambiguous. It has been defined as something offensive to modesty or decency or expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas or being impure, indecent or lewd, or tends tending to deprave and corrupt those whose minds ↑which↓ are open to immoral influences."
I deny the charge. I deny that there is one word or sentence or article in any of these papers, which can be termed obscene or which in any way violates this law or the intent of this law. I have read Section 211 many times and by the wildest stretch of the imagination there is nothing from the pages of "The Woman Rebel" which in any way incites to passion or immorality. The law distinctly says that no one shall give any information to prevent conception or to produce abortion and nowhere in the columns of this paper has this information been given. The law does not prohibit a discussion of these questions, but that is what Mr. Content wants you to believe. I advocate that the knowledge to prevent conception be placed in the hands of women. I advocate small families for ↑the↓ working mothers class mothers and have encouraged them not to have more children than they can feed, clothe and care for. Is this obscene? Why is it that I am indicted for advocating small families when others quite prominent in the world's affairs are allowed to go up and down the length of the land advocating large families. Certainly if the picture brought to ↑a↓ young girl's mind by telling her not to have many children is in any way inciting to immorality, what must it be to be told that it is her duty to have many children? Which is the most moral? Is it obscene ↑indecent↓ to help educate people; to have a responsibility towards their actions and towards their offspring or is it not more obscene to keep them in ignorance, misery and poverty. This law does not say that one cannot advocate small ↑families↓ and therefore nothing that has been read to you from the pages of "The Woman Rebel" violates that law.
Is it moral for two adult people to bring children into the world knowing that there is no possible provision made for their survival? Is it moral to leave the welfare and health of your offspring to the charity of a few kindly and well-intentioned philanthropists or is it not the duty of two people to be responsible for and the consequences of their acts, securing to the best of their ability all advantages for their children's development? Is this not the greatest moral step forward which the working people of this generation are desirous of taking. For it is a noted fact that as soon as a woman raises herself out of the lowest stages of poverty and ignorance where the present system of society has placed her, her first step is to seek knowledge whereby she shall have control over the size of her family? Where can she go for this knowledge? She knows that the woman of the upper-class has this information, which she in her poverty cannot afford to pay for. Consequently she must bring forth children who either die in infancy or grow up to fill the reformatories jails and poor-houses, or she must resort to abortions! Abortions and their horrible consequences are unnecessary. The "Woman Rebel" has said this and the District Attorney has chosen to call it "obscene" ↑indecent↓ .
I trust you do not feel that I would have the impertinence to go into a work of this kind without realizing the responsibility which the dissemination of such knowledge brings; without a thorough study of the question from all points of view. For the past four years I have studied this subject and visited different countries France, Holland, England and Spain where the subject is considered from the family, the moral, the individual and the racial point of view, and before I go any further I should like to give you a brief summary of my life's work and the conditions that I met with which made me study this question and has brought me here today.
For in bringing in a verdict it will not be enough for you to decide whether these papers are obscene in character but it will also be necessary to get at the intent. The prosecution in drawing up the indictment has used great cunning in carefully extracting parts of the paper which do not dwell on the bigness of the Cause. He has said that the intent was good but that the intent does not matter. I claim that the intent is a very vital part of this charge. I further claim that these indictments should never have been brought against me, and were those who are back of this prosecution really interested in the welfare of the people as they pretend to be, they would not be wasting your time here to-day and piling up the enormous costs on the people's backs by such proceedings. The intent is the very essence of the character of this paper. It may be defiant; it may be bold; it may be much that you do not approve of but ↑ [you do not want to agree?] ↓ . the intent is certainly not obscene! ↑The question you are to decide is-- Is it obscene?↓
Far back in my early childhood days, my first impression of life was that large families and poverty went hand-in-hand. I was born and brought up in a small factory town in the western part of New York State. I was one of eleven children, so that I had some personal knowledge of the struggles and hardships which a large family endures. At the age of seventeen my mother died from the results of overwork and the strain of too-frequent child-bearing which left me with the care of four younger children to share the burdens with a lovely poetic Irish father.
A few years later I entered a hospital to take up the profession of nursing. It is impossible for anyone ↑woman↓ to go through a general training without realizing that ↑she must revalue ideas of life--↓ 75% of the diseases of men and women are the results of their sex lives. This discovery decided me to specialize in women's diseases and I devoted myself to gynecological and obstetrical work. A few years of work in this special line gave me a still greater discovery, i.e. that knowledge to prevent conception was obtained and practiced among the women of wealth while the working women were kept in ignorance of this knowledge. I found that the women of wealth were able to have abortions performed if it became necessary and such care and attention was given them by the medical profession that seldom did a death occur among them. I found that the women of the working-class were as anxious to obtain this information as their sisters of wealth but that there were laws upon the statute book against imparting this information, and the medical profession was most religious in obeying the laws when the patient was a poor woman. I found that the women of the working-class had emphatic views on the crime of bringing children into the world to die of hunger and were willing to risk their lives through abortions rather than give birth to unwanted offspring. I found that 300,000 children die each year from poverty and neglect, while the parents remain in ignorance of the means of preventing 300,000 more from coming into the world to die the following year. I found that the children who toil in factories and mills all come from parents who average 9 living children. I found that ↑from↓ the records concerning the woman of the underworld; the so-called prostitute--that 85% of them come from parents who average 9 children. I found that the laws against imparting knowledge to prevent conception had forced women into the hands of filthy midwives and quack abortionists unless they would bear unwanted children, with the consequences that the deaths from abortions were almost wholly among women of the working-class. I found that no other country in the world has so large a number of abortionists nor so large a number of deaths resulting therefrom, as the United States of America, and that the quacks and abortionists were rolling in wealth while our law-makers were closing their virtuous eyes. What did I find that Society was doing to alter these conditions. I found that it was treating with the symptoms instead of the disease ↑causes↓ . They founded the Little Mother Leagues, Babies Nurseries, Better Baby Leagues, and hundreds of well-intentioned philanthropic and charitable organizations are trying to ↑tried to↓ cure a social cancer by burning off the top instead of getting at the root. These conditions I found resulting from ignorance and I decided to arouse the people of this country to these conditions and to put into action some means of removing them.
Before doing this it was necessary to make a thorough study of the special question involved. Learning that this information can be obtained in every other civilized country in the world except the United States, I decided to go abroad to study it there.
My first visit was to Glasgow where I spent several weeks trying to find out what twenty years of municipal ownership had done for women and children. I was disappointed in finding that the benefits resulting from this system were for those who had few children; the model tenements owned by the municipality were constructed for families having not more than three children, while working people with more than this number were compelled to huddle in the surroundings of their industry. From here, disgusted and disappointed with these municipal reforms, I went to Holland, where I found that the Dutch women through the knowledge to prevent conception had done more for themselves and their children in one year than was done during the whole twenty years of municipal administration in Glasgow. I will not dwell upon the conditions I found there but suffice it to say that children are loved and cared for in Holland as perhaps in no other country in Europe because those who are born are desired and the knowledge of how to prevent births is given to all ↑married↓ women, or women old enough to be married, in clinics conducted by nurses ↑& Doctors↓ .
These conditions so impressed me that I was convinced that we in the United States cannot advance either morally or socially until we take up the study of the knowledge to control births. On my return to this country my desire was to inform women of the conditions which I had found. I wanted their opinions on the advisability of imparting this information. The best way to find out the opinions of people is through the Press. I issued this publication (The Woman Rebel) to the thinking women of the working-class. The first issue was suppressed by the Postal Authorities. Let us look again at the first issue. We find here two counts which show definitely that the discussion to prevent conception was the objection the censorship had to this issue. This was March and the May, July, September and October issues were in turn suppressed and confiscated by the Post Office authorities in this City. ↑Alth'o the paper was mailed as first class matter↓ all of the articles except the one on assassination (with which I shall deal later) are on the discussion of small families and the question for you to settle to-day is: Are the working women of America to have the use of the mails for the purpose of their moral education and in language they can understand; simple, plain, without technical covering, or if the mails are only for the use of special people with college or university diplomas. When Congress was authorized to establish post-offices it was never intended that it should pass judgement on the political, religious or moral opinions of the matter to be conveyed. It was intended to fetch and carry printed matter regardless of these opinions. If we concede this constitutional guarantee ↑right↓ to this institution we might as well concede the same right to the Interboro Rapid Transit Co., or any other company of public utility. There is little doubt that the law was never intended to interfere with serious discussions carried on with dignity ↑& for a high purpose special purpose↓ but was for the suppression of pornographic pictures and writings.
The publication of the "Woman Rebel" brought me an enthusiastic support from prominent men and women throughout this country. It aroused physicians and educators alike to the necessity of Birth Control as a national issue and has brought to the notice of all social workers the much-neglected question of large families. (Articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Republic, The N.Y. American and the Tribune). Those ↑My↓ articles on Birth Control have received the approval and support of the most eminent authorities in Great Britain ↑as you may see by↓ the following communication signed by H. G. Wells, Gilbert Murray, Arnold Bennett, Percy Ames, Edward Carpenter, Lena Ashwell, Marie C. Stopes, Aylmer Maude and William Archer, was forwarded to President Wilson and reads as follows:-
"TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, WHITE HOUSE, WASH. D.C.
Sir:- We understand that Mrs Margaret Sanger is in danger of criminal prosecution for circulating a paper on birth control. We therefore beg to draw your attention to the fact that such work as that of Mrs Sanger's received appreciation and circulation in every civilised country except the United States of America, where it is still counted as a criminal offense.
We in England, passed a generation ago, through the phase of prohibiting the expressions of serious and disinterested opinion on a subject of such grave importance to humanity, and in our view, to suppress any such treatment of vital subjects is detrimental to human progress.
Hence, not only for the benefit of Mrs Sanger, but of humanity, we respectfully beg you to exert your powerful influence in the interests of free speech and the betterment of the race.
We beg to remain etc.
Those who signed this communication have as you doubtless know, made a life-long study of Birth Control, and strongly endorse its practice for the benefit of the human race.
I will now take up the article on Marriage which treats of a different subject.
↑Gentleman what do we find here.↓
There is nothing here which has a tendency to deprave. On the contrary the language and intent of this article show the highest moral purpose, for it is a protest against that form of sex-slavery which woman too often has to submit to in married life. It is a plea for love in wedlock as opposed to brute force. It appeals to man to develop the finer qualities of his sex-nature to win the object of his affection instead of taking for granted that a wife's duty is to submit herself at all times to his needs.
The fact that there are 85,000 divorces granted each year in the United States goes to prove that there is some discordant note in the marriage bond of today which needs serious discussion and investigation. In order to do this, as with birth control women must have a medium for their discussion.
On the shelves of my library I have dozens of books dealing with the marriage problem in the language similar to that used in this article. All of these books pass through the U.S. mails and no action is taken against their publishers. I need only to mention G. Bernard Shaw's preface to his play "Getting Married" in which he says that ↑extracts which I will read giving the same ideas↓
This book also is forwarded through the U.S. mails but the censorship does not dare attack so prominent an author.
↑ I submit I deny that↓ In this article on "The Marriage Bed" there is anything obscene, lewd or depraving. ↑The title may be obnoxious to some but you must judge the article by its content & I believe that the coarsest mind could find nothing filthy vile obscene↓
If the United States Government have indictments out for the Publishers of Wendell Phillips ↑or Roosevelt's↓ Books as well as three of the books mentioned above--then we might consider the justice of this accusation, but here again as with the subject of marriage, the petty officials of this city dare not attack or indict Publishers or Authors who are well known.
Now, gentlemen, I have tried prove to you that the language of this Article is impartial, clear and cool, appealing to logic and the cold day light of reason and I trust you will agree with me that this is so, but I have not told you the reason why I published this Article on "The Defense of Assassination."
When the March issue was suppressed, I wrote at once to the Post Master requesting him to inform me what Articles, words or sentences in the issue were objectionable, so that I could either alter them or have some guide by which I could be directed. His reply was curt and short, but I was no wiser than before. The next issue was suppressed and again I requested to be informed what was the special objection to the paper, and again the same unintelligent reply.
I resolved then and there to bring the "nigger out of the wood pile" and to make the authorities cease suppressing and confiscating a publication without giving the reason and forced them to come out into the open and tell the public where they stand.
I am glad to say this article did it, not because there is anything inciting either to murder or immorality at all, but because of the very word "Assassination". This indictment is based on a head line alone, for tho one does approve of an act, approval does not necessitate inciting others to approve. This man gives us his reasons WHY he approves or defends assassination and I claim he has a right to be heard.
I am not going to go further into this defense, I am not going to "sum up" all the proof I have placed before you, I am going to conclude by asking you to try and look out upon the World with me, as I have tried to tell you what I have seen and to ask you to consider the Age, the century, this year 1916--the Country where we have the most advanced electrical devices and comforts and construction engineering--we are here in what is called the most advanced country in the world and yet within these walls in this same age and year here is a woman pleading with you, as if it was three hundred years ago. I ask you gentlemen to consider, as Justice Coleridge says in his summing up in a case similar to this a year or so ago etc.
Gentlemen, I have not dwelled upon the personal inconveniences that these indictments have caused me, I have not told you of the hardships, the financial outlay, the sacrifices, the separation from my children for over a year, the imprisonment of my husband and the death of my little girl which have been caused of these indictments, all which I lay at the door of the government which has caused me to be insulted, slandered and my name and work tainted with that foul stigma ↑ [tag?] ↓ "OBSCENITY".
I have not dwelt on these personal matters because I want you to consider my innocence from a impersonal view, but I cannot refrain from impressing you with the inconvenience and the hardships unless I can leave this room acquitted by you of these charges, which otherwise a life time cannot wipe from one's name and work.
And in conclusion let us remind ourselves again of the Appeal to our forefathers by that worthy Veteran of liberty, Thos. Paine when he said: "O ye who love Mankind, ye who dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrants stand forth. Liberty has been chased around the globe--receive ye oh the captive, and let us here in United States prepare an asylum fit for mankind."
You have had this article read to you by the prosecution and must realize that it has been presented with great care and caution. The subject is a ↑no doubt a disagreeable↓ painful one but what connection this article has with obscenity it would take something more than a legal mind to grasp. Before I go any further with this matter I want to draw your attention to the editorial page of "The Woman Rebel" where you will see printed a notice to the effect that "The Editor does not necessarily agree with all signed articles." I am not here today to defend the principle of assassination but I do come to defend the right of the author of this article to express his views in the press in this way. The article in question is an academic, scientific, and impartial and logical discussion on methods and tactics which may possibly arise in a given society for the removal of certain individuals who may have put themselves beyond the reach of constitutional law. There was no recommendation made here to slay or assassinate any special individual or tyrant and as this article was published over a year ago and no one has been assassinated as a result of reading this, I submit these facts bear out my contention and judgement that ↑it↓ is a pure academic defense, appealing to the intellect and reason and not to the ↑passions↓ emotions of my readers.
(Inciting or Appealing to emotions.)
Were I defending the principle of assassination I could mention hundreds of celebrated writers of moral and political economy who have argued the necessity of putting the law of nature in force against tyrants who have the power and desire to set themselves above all laws made for the welfare of the society in which they may live, but I am defending the freedom of the press ↑on this issue.↓ I could have brought here dozens of volumes from the best authorities; authorities whom no man in this court would decry, to support the necessity and propriety of putting tyrants to death if no other means of for their removal present themselves.
All of these volumes extracts from ↑some of them↓ which I shall read, are allowed to be sent through the U. S. mails and when you shall have heard the opinions of these writers, you gentlemen will, I am sure, acquit me of either malicious intent or of inciting to assassination. I was not the author of the article. The article author is a man whose scientific knowledge justifies an opinion which I, as editor and publisher, believing in the freedom of the press, had every reason to believe he had the right under our constitution to express.
You can read again the article in question and I submit to you it is not one whit ↑bit↓ more cruel or inciting to murder than the dozens and hundreds of articles written in our daily papers dealing ↑& inciting to↓ with the war. I ↑further↓ submit this article is more moral and ↑would have a better↓ effect upon a community than the sporting page of any daily paper. I wish to read you some extracts from the classics.
I will begin with the philosophers of Greece and Rome, whose opinions are supported by authorities from the Bible and which, I trust, will fully exculpate me from the charge upon the record.
Plato, in his plan for a Republic (a volume which may be purchased at Brentano's on Fifth Ave and sent through the U.S. Mails to your address for the sum of $2.00) says, in part:-
"The longer a tyrant lives, the more tyrannical humor increases in him, like those beasts who grow more vicious as they grow older." Again he says:- "The ordinary course they took with tyrants in Greece was to dispatch them secretly, if there was no opportunity of expelling them by accusations before the citizens".
Aristotle also says:-"Tyranny is against the law of human society, in which human nature is preserved."
Zenophon says:-"The Grecians would not allow murderers to come into their temples yet in those very temples they erected statues to those who killed tyrants thinking their deliverers fit companions for their gods.
Then there is that beautiful book on [four words illegible] written by [two words illegible] the great [scholar and prophet?] of freedom.
Cicero, in extolling the assassination of Caesar says:-"What act, O Jupiter, more glorious; more worthy of eternal memory hath been done, not only in this city but in the whole world. All good men killed Caesar. Some wanted capacity, some courage, others opportunity but none wanted the will to do it."
Tertullian:- (who was one of the Fathers of the Church, says) "Against common enemies and those who are enemies of the commonwealth, every man is a soldier."
St. Augustine says:- "Is it not incongruous that the laws of Nature and society as well permit a man to kill a thief if he be found breaking into his house at night and that a tyrant who is a common robber of mankind, to whom nothing is sacred, and whom no law can bind, should be considered inviolable."
I will conclude with an approval of tyrannists assassination written by Theodore Roosevelt in his "Life of Cromwell" published by ↑Scribner & Son↓ Quote. . . . .
The article I have published, gentlemen, you will observe does not necessarily ↑so emphatically or enthusiastically↓ approve of assassination, as Mr. Roosevelt's quotation does. In the Woman Rebel the Article deals with the question in an impartial way, viewing it from both the moral and biological standpoints. About a third of the article consists of a quotation from Wendell Phillips and the remainder deals with the subject in the general way I have described to you.
↑ If the U.S. govt have indictments out for the publishers of Wendell Phillips & Theodore Roosevelt's books as well as Those of the books mentioned above--then we might consider the justice of this accusation.↓
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project